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The 11th Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. Once again, it could be the year of the Russians. Then again, it could be the year of the Italians.

There are more of each this year - though many of the "Russians" now come from such places as Georgia, Israel, even the United States. And while the last Bachauer, in 1991, was ultimately won by an American, Juilliard-trained Gail Niwa, few will forget the impact the Soviet-trained competitors made, taking most of the subsidiary prizes.But in recent years it is the Italians who have walked away with the gold at a good many other international contests, including the Van Cliburn, Arthur Rubinstein, Queen Sonja and just-completed Dublin competitions. And, as mentioned, they are also due this week in record numbers for the Bachauer, to take place June 13-25 at Abravanel Hall.

There's even a new Italian piano, a $120,000 Fazioli (joining the Falcone, Kawai, Yamaha and two Steinways competitors will have their pick of), and an Italian associate artistic director, Massi-miliano Frani, who himself was a competitor in 1991.

"In Italy the Bachauer is extremely well-known," Frani says of the competition that had its beginnings 18 years ago at Brigham Young University. So much so that when he first met LDS missionaries in his native Venice in 1988, his first words on hearing they were from Utah were, "Wow, the Bachauer!"

Frani ended up joining the LDS Church and coming to Utah himself, where he made it as far as the Bachauer's preliminary rounds in 1991. When jury chairman Joanne Baker announced the quarterfinalists that year and Frani realized he'd been eliminated, "my heart just dropped," he says, "but only for an hour.

"Then it came to my mind what had really happened to me, and I know for many others coming here it is exactly the same. Never before had I practiced so much, or been so motivated to practice. Then when I played the two preliminary rounds it was the first time I actually enjoyed performing, even before that very selective, very critical audience. Until then I did not know that I could actually be happy for 15 or 30 minutes onstage, and that helps you know whether or not you're going to be a musician."

Someone who had a similar experience in 1991, and before that 1988, was American-born Anthony Padilla, who is returning this year for his third Bachauer in a row.

"The first time I finished as a quarterfinalist, then last time as a semifinalist," the 28-year-old Padilla says from his home in Rochester, N.Y. "I hope to keep moving up. But each time it's been a valuable learning experience, especially those performances that have been recorded and videotaped. I've even used some as audition tapes."

Padilla was likewise disappointed when he was eliminated, especially in 1991 when "I thought my chamber round might have pulled me through. But because of the draw, I played the first solo round and the last chamber round, and I found there was a significant difference between my sound in that hall when it was virtually empty, for the first, and when it was full."

In short, the audience made a difference for him as well, and not just as an acoustical sounding board.

"Compared with other competitions I've played in," he says, "this one has a lot more involvement on the part of the audience. And because of that, it makes it easier to forget you're playing for a jury. The performing conditions are much more normal."

Friendlier, too, Padilla adds.

"There's an informality about the Bachauer that makes it a lot more comfortable than some competitions I've been to in Europe. It seems to be an American thing, not to take everything too seriously, so there are parties and opportunities to socialize with the other participants. And there are also the host families."

Indeed Padilla's relationship with his host family has been so congenial that he's had the same one each time he's competed here - the Robert Johnson family.

"They're very supportive," he says, "and that helps a lot, because it's really tough to be up there performing and not get any feedback from friends or people you know. In Utah you get that right away, and that's something I haven't been able to have in most other competitions. In Dublin, for example, they didn't even come to hear it."

Nor is Padilla the only former Bachauer competitor re-entering the lists. Those who were disappointed at Oleg Marshev's quarterfinal elimination three years ago will be happy to hear he is among this year's contingent. As is Canada's Peter Longworth, who last time made it as far as the semi-finals.

Even a pair of former Bachauer winners are entered this year, only in this case the competition they won was the Junior Bachauer, held in alternate years.

They are Bo Pang, from the People's Republic of China, who took top honors in last year's Junior Bachauer, and Salt Lake City's own Eugene Watanabe, who did the same in 1987.

Watanabe, in fact, could turn out to be the dark horse in this year's contest. In 1992 he graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music, with degrees in piano and violin, and this year alone has pulled down the top prizes in the Kingsville, Texas, International Competition and, just last month, the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competition in New York - all at age 22.

Originally, 65 pianists, ages 19 through 32, were selected from 240 applicants to this year's Bachauer. As of this writing, that's down to 59, though if Russia's Yakov Kasman irons out his passport problems in time to make it to Monday's opening ceremonies, that number could go up to 60.

Late Friday a similar problem for Cuba's Alexis Feo Fernandez - in this case obtaining a U.S. visa - was solved with the help of Sen. Orrin Hatch's office. Hence Pollei hopes Fernandez can get here in time, but, he says, "we always lose a few," adding that one or two others are in doubt.

Nor are competitors the only casualties. This year, for example, three jury members have been forced to cancel, Russia's Eugene Malinin, Norway's Einar Steen-Noekleberg and Japan's Hiroko Nakamura.

Even so, the Bachauer's international presence is such that this year, for the first time, foreign-born competitors outnumber U.S.-born, by a ratio of almost 3-to-1.

Pollei attributes that to the decline of American music education per se. "The art of the solo recital and the art of training pianists for careers has diminished in this country," he says, "whereas especially in the communist and former communist countries they still carry that huge, time-honored tradition that the secret of a performing career is to win a major competition." That and the fact that now Soviet-trained musicians can be found all over the world.

"We held auditions in 14 cities," Pollei says of this year's selection process, "and we found Russians in practically every one of them. In Israel, for instance, seven out of the eight candidates were Russian-trained."

Anyone who doubts the Bachauer is among the world's major competitions has only to look at the prizes, this year totaling more than $100,000.

This year's gold-medal winner, for example, will receive an $8,000 cash award, a New York recital debut, together with recording and concert engagements and a Steinway Model M grand piano. That is up substantially over 1991's $3,000, as are the second and third prizes, which have gone from $5,000 and $3,000 to $7,000 and $5,000 respectively.

What is harder to measure are the long-term effects of a competition victory. The Bachauer has yet to produce the kind of overnight sensation Van Cliburn became when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, or even winners of the stature of Emanuel Ax, Andre-Michel Schub or Murray Perahia.

But sometimes things take a while to develop. The very first Bachauer winner, BYU's Douglas Humpherys from 1976, has just been appointed a full professor at the Eastman School of Music. (He is also a member of this year's jury.) And 1988's Xiang-Dong Kong - perhaps the most controversial of Bachauer winners at the time - was recently signed to a recording contract by BMG Classics.

Among other well-known names, actor Peter Ustinov has been named honorary chairman of the competition, succeeding former Utah Symphony music director Maurice Abravanel, who died last year. Ustinov will, however, not be at this year's competition, citing a professional conflict.

Those who will be there include conductor Jorge Mester, who will lead the Utah Symphony in the final-round concerto performances June 24 and 25, and critic and radio commentator Martin Bookspan, who will provide commentary for KBYU-FM's live coverage of the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals June 20-25, as well as MC the awards ceremony June 25. (KBYU station manager Walter Rudolph will again be the onstage host for the rounds themselves.)

Things get under way Monday, June 13, with the 8 p.m. opening ceremonies at Abravanel Hall. With Kurt Bestor as master of ceremonies, the judges and the competitors will be introduced and the latter will draw for order of performance.

In addition there will be performances by the American Piano Quartet and comic pianist Mitchell Zeidwig, along with other speeches and presentations.

Preliminary rounds, at which each competitor will perform two 15-minute programs, will then take place Tuesday through Friday, June 14-17, at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Following that, the 20 quarterfinalists will each perform a concerto, with piano accompaniment, ranging from Chopin and Dohnanyi to Villa-Lobos and Weber, Monday and Tuesday, June 20 and 21, at 1 and 7 p.m. The 10 semifinalists will then each play a 50-minute solo recital Wednesday, June 22, at 1 and 7 p.m. and Thursday, June 23, at noon. From that number, six will be chosen for the June 24-25 concerto round, beginning each night at 7.

Tickets are $100 for the complete package or $8 per day for the preliminary, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds and $26-$50 for the two-night final round.

For additional information call 533-NOTE.